THE AWU slush fund attack appears to have backfired on the opposition, driving Tony Abbott's popularity to historic lows. But the Coalition would still easily win a federal election, according to the latest Herald/Nielsen poll.
The poll shows Labor holding, but not building on, its end-of-year political recovery - trailing the Coalition 52 per cent to 48 in two party-preferred terms.
Of the 75 per cent of voters who said they were aware of the AWU allegations about the conduct of the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, when she was a lawyer 20 years ago, 64 per cent said they disapproved of the way Mr Abbott had handled the issue. This included 46 per cent of his Liberal National Party voters.
The ferocious end-of-year attack over the affair - in which the Coalition was unable to prove allegations of illegal behaviour by Ms Gillard but still demanded she resign - coincides with Mr Abbott's disapproval rate climbing to 63 per cent, a record for him and the second highest in Nielsen poll history.
After a year dominated by political scandal, Mr Abbott's approval rating fell 2 points to 34 per cent in the poll, taken from Thursday to Saturday, and his disapproval rating rose 3 points.
Ms Gillard now has a 10-point lead over Mr Abbott as preferred prime minister, with Ms Gillard preferred by 50 per cent of voters (down 1) and Mr Abbott by 40 per cent (down 2).
''His handling of the AWU matter has not helped his position and may be part of the reason his approval has further declined,'' said Nielsen director John Stirton.
Despite Mr Abbott's record unpopularity, the Coalition has 43 per cent of the primary vote - slightly lower than it polled in the 2010 election - and 51 per cent of the two party-preferred vote. It would win an election on a two party-preferred swing of about 2 per cent, based on preference flows at the 2010 election.
If preferences are instead calculated by how respondents say they will allocate them, the gap between the parties is narrower, with the Coalition on 51 per cent and Labor on 49.
Labor ends the year in an uncertain position. It has maintained its recovery from its disastrous midyear polls, with its primary vote now 35 per cent, up from the low of 26 per cent before the carbon tax was introduced in July. But it does not appear to be gaining momentum.
''Labor's holding its recovery, it's real, and there is no evidence here that it has reversed. But it has slowed, and it is too early to say whether it will continue,'' Mr Stirton said.
Of the 75 per cent of voters aware of the AWU issue, only 24 per cent approved of Mr Abbott's handling of the matter. Disapproval of how he handled it was higher among women (66 per cent). Asked how Ms Gillard had handled it, 47 per cent approved and 40 per cent disapproved. But 71 per cent said it had made no difference to their attitudes to the Prime Minister. Only 24 per cent said they had a more negative opinion of her as a result of the allegations.
The highest disapproval rating recorded in Nielsen polling was 72 per cent by Andrew Peacock in October 1984 against Bob Hawke, whose approval rating was about 75 per cent. Ms Gillard's approval rating is 46 per cent.
In 1984 the Coalition trailed badly in polling of voting intentions although Mr Peacock went on to win seats from Labor in the election held in December. Labor suffered from its decision to hold the election early and run a 10-week campaign.
Mr Stirton said the present discrepancy between Mr Abbott's record low approval and the party's election-winning position was unusual.
''It is unusual to have a leader who is so very unpopular and a party still ahead on voting intention,'' he said.
The negative voter reaction to the AWU attack comes as Labor continues to demand answers about the involvement of senior Liberals in the sexual harassment allegations brought against the former speaker Peter Slipper, which were thrown out of court last week as a politically motivated abuse of process.
On Sunday the manager of government business in the lower house, Anthony Albanese, seized on Mr Abbott's repeated statement that he had no ''specific'' prior knowledge about the claim.
''Every time Tony Abbott says that he had no specific knowledge, he confirms that he and the Coalition were in it up to their neck,'' Mr Albanese said.
He said the government still had not decided whether to launch an inquiry into the Coalition's knowledge and involvement in the affair.
''What we won't do is shoot off at the hip. We'll consider all of the analysis, get proper advice … about what options are available to the government,'' he said. ''It needs to be gotten right in terms of not a political process, not a witch-hunt, but an administrative process … so the facts can be out there,'' he told Sky television.
At the height of the Godwin Grech affair, Mr Abbott's predecessor, Malcolm Turnbull, recorded a disapproval rating of 60 per cent. By the time he was removed as leader at the end of 2009, his disapproval rating was 51 per cent. Mr Abbott has pledged a more positive approach next year.
The telephone poll of 1400 people found the Greens' primary vote had fallen to 10 per cent. It showed the Coalition's support strongest in Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia.